Simple Steps to Improve Game Localization
Arle Lommel is a senior analyst at CSA Research. He has extensive experience in language, linguistics, localization technology, and standards, and holds a PhD in Folkloristics.
Localizing gaming applications is very different from typical enterprise applications in many ways. It poses particular challenges that may not apply to other kinds of content. Many games work because they succeed in building a compelling and immersive experience in a virtual world, one that engages and sustains a sense of believability throughout gameplay. Subpar localization that jars users out of the story can annoy gamers and create a poor experience.
Contrast this with typical office or productivity applications where poor localization may be an irritation, but is far less likely to render the product itself less acceptable. For instance, language serves a supporting role in a spreadsheet, but the application’s core functions do not typically change from market to market. As a result, even though the words appearing in the user interface (UI) or elsewhere are important in guiding users to accomplish tasks, they are not part of its core function. Similarly, a user manual or online help site is successful if it helps users accomplish a task, even if the language isn’t stylish or doesn’t sound perfectly native.
As you localize your gaming content, factor in the following during the planning process.
Language selection requires in-depth knowledge of local market preferences
The first item on this list starts even before localization — it begins at the point you make your plans for market entry. For most enterprise localization, language selection is relatively straightforward: you select which markets you want to support, and provide the language needed to facilitate sales and use of the product in the market. For productivity apps, you can assume that buying patterns will be similar around the world and you choose the languages needed to meet economic demand. Most often, you’ll be drawing from the pool of 135 languages that CSA Research tracks for measurable economic demand. Most enterprises choose from among those in the top language tiers, and gradually extend to more languages (Figure 1).
By contrast, with games you have to account for local preferences in gaming culture. For example, casual farming games are quite popular in France, and Russian gamers tend to prefer combat strategy games. As a result, the localization portfolio of a farming game is likely to be quite different from a tank combat simulator set in World War II (which would be the “Great Patriotic War” in Russian).
Figure 1: The economic power of the top 100 online languages. Source: CSA Research 2020.
you select languages, review country-level popularity data to determine whether your game title makes sense for a given market. However, just because you don’t see similar titles as top sellers in a country doesn’t mean that localization will not be worth it. You may have the break-out title for a genre or it may be that even a less popular title will still justify the (relatively low) cost of localization, particularly for puzzle-matching games or other ones with relatively little linguistic content. Whatever you decide, temper your expectations with data and solid competitive research.
Leave enough time, plan ahead, and provide guidance
Closely related to the previous point, the need for adaptation and testing also means that you need to start early and give your localizers time to complete their work. Holding off until a few weeks before your release date is an almost-certain recipe for disaster. Even as the rest of the software world seems to be rushing to agile and continuous release models, be aware that these are particularly difficult for gaming when you factor in localization. Translating or updating a few strings at a time or rushing the work can lead to inconsistencies and poor success at building a believable in-game world.
Similarly, gaming is one area where you cannot “throw text over the wall,” use unedited machine translation, or skimp on instructions. Game localizers will need detailed guidelines about what sort of localization you want and what you expect them to deliver. Many localization quality disputes arise from unclear guidance and mismatched expectations, something that is especially true in gaming where different parties may have very different visions of what the end result should look like. It is critical to align these areas early on.
Note as well that games tend to require highly adaptive translation (also known as transcreation), and that this takes time and can require changes in areas that developers may not think of. It also requires clear guidance concerning what can and cannot be changed. For example, if you develop a word puzzle game, just changing dictionaries will not be enough for many languages as different languages use different characters and have them in different frequencies. Successful localization in such cases requires knowledge of what changes can occur and how to accommodate them.
Help speed up localization by focusing your development efforts where you can nail down text early on. Start localization on aspects such as cut scenes or introductions that are important in establishing the game and likely to be complete relatively early, even if gameplay may not yet be perfect. Provide guidance and context to localizers so they understand the role their content plays and what your expectations are. If you don’t know what the best localization approach is for something, talk to your localization providers and involve them as the skilled professional partners that they should be to you.
Worldwide deployment requires multiple platforms
Novice game developers may only be familiar with their home market. They may assume that “everyone” has iOS, Android, particular consoles, or a PC. But the reality is that different markets have different realities. For example, a casual puzzle game created to work on Facebook might be successful in the United States, France, and Germany, but not be successful at all in China (where Facebook is usually blocked and WeChat would be a better option) or Russia (where VK Gaming would be an appropriate option). And of course, the opposite is true: Games created for WeChat or VK Gaming will struggle in the markets where those platforms have negligible market penetration.
Similarly, a developer of a console or PC game may find that sales would fall below expectations in markets where mobile gaming is more common, or an app developer who targets iOS would need to provide an Android version to address certain markets. For example, according to online usage monitor Stat-Counter, iOS had a market share of approximately 61% in the United States as of November 2020, but just 31% in Europe, 16% in Asia, and 3% in India. As a result, picking the wrong platform provides a hard limit to sales in certain languages and regions.
Determine which platforms you will need to support, and plan for them from the beginning. Design around a common feature set that will ensure that titles that can function independently of particular platforms, devices, or OSes. Keep in mind too that not all customers will have the latest and greatest hardware or bandwidth around the world, so titles must be robust enough to work even in suboptimal conditions. Test them in all the conditions you would sell or deploy them in — and on all platforms.
Internationalize, internationalize, internationalize!
Games are some of the most unforgiving environments for internationalization errors. Their combination of text and graphics can make it very difficult to fix mistakes if developers don’t leave room for text expansion or don’t allow for the need to flip UIs for Arabic and Hebrew. Also, novice developers will frequently concatenate strings in ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, to localize dynamically generated text. Because these problems have a way of cropping up near the end of the development cycle, they run the risk of delaying shipment or requiring subsequent updates to deliver the proper language experience.
Internationalization actually extends beyond technical aspects as well, and should include a review of text and concepts to make sure they can be translated. This requirement is separate from transcreation — where adaptation is desirable in order to build compelling worlds — and applies to content that could be written in a way that makes it more translatable. Things like word play are notoriously difficult to translate. Although they may contribute to an overall feeling, if they aren’t essential enough to where you would want to transcreate them, consider leaving them out instead.
Check game code early and often for embedded strings and concatenated text. Here you can use automated code scanners to find problems and push them back to developers. Even if your text is not yet stable enough to translate, use pseudo-translation or machine translation with appropriate expansion factors to identify problems and repair them. In addition, keep in mind that text expansion affects not only written text, but spoken dialogue, so make sure to internationalize cut scenes and other cinematic-style portions of games by leaving enough time for localized dialogue to play out. Verify that meaning is clear and unambiguous to help localizers get the right nuance in the target language.
Gaming localization is not an insurmountable challenge, but it does require thought and care. Planning ahead and think-ing about international audiences can make all the difference between a strong localized title and one that flops. Be aware of the areas where localized games can struggle or fall flat and make sure to address them from the beginning.